I was brought up in the world of silk with my father, brother and now my nephew successively managing the company which is still weaving today after 300 years in the same family. I spent my early years in the house next to the mill – very much the model for The Chestnuts – and as a teenager spent school holidays working there. Perhaps because of this familiarity, I didn’t at first think of it as a potential setting for a novel until a friend pointed out what a uniquely interesting place it was.
My father also told me how, before the war, the family had sponsored five Jewish ‘Kindertransport’ boys who were later interned. One of them returned to fight with the Allied forces and came back to marry his sweetheart, ending up as a senior manager in the company and lifelong friend of the family. There was a problem with silk supplies in the early part of the war, and I was fortunate enough to interview the son of the yarn merchant who was actually sent to the Middle East to find new sources. My uncle John spent five years in a German prisoner of war camp, and I talked to him about his experiences and learned much from his letters, which had been carefully saved by my grandparents.
So although Lily and her problems with the silk are entirely fictional, as are all my characters and what happens to them, my inspiration was certainly rooted in real people and real events.
Q3: To start with, Lily seems to have little ambition or interest in silk but ends up managing a factory. How realistic is that for a woman in the first half of the 20th century?
Life in Britain during both wars was very tough but tremendously liberating for women, providing the opportunity to learn new skills and work in areas where they never would have been accepted before. After the 1914-18 war many of them, sometimes reluctantly, relinquished their jobs to returning soldiers. But after 1945 women had discovered how liberating and satisfying work outside the home could be, and it became more widely accepted that they too could have careers, even if they didn’t get equal pay with men. I wanted Lily’s story to reflect that growing confidence and acceptance of women in the world of work.
Q4: If Britain was happy to accept young Jewish refugees before the war, how come they were deported as ‘enemy aliens’ once the war started?
Before the war, Britain was a place of refuge for many fleeing persecution but in 1940, after the Nazis had stormed into France and were clearly preparing to invade Britain, there was growing fear at both official and local level about spies and infiltrators. Internment was a perhaps understandable reaction to that fear, and was eventually extended to all men and boys holding passports from enemy countries aged 16 and over, regardless of their profession or the length of time they had lived in the UK (women were apparently not seen as such a threat!). Their subsequent treatment was in some cases scandalous – as with the 2,500 sent to Australia on the Dunera.
Q5: Why did you decide to introduce a gay character in Gwen? And were you tempted to let Lily and Gwen have a fully-fledged affair?
I’m not sure where Gwen came from, or why she turned out to be gay! She just arrived, freckles and all, and I knew she was going to be an interesting and important character. My great aunt Phoebe was a fiercely independent career woman who lived with a female ‘companion’ and no-one in the family ever thought this was unusual, so perhaps she was a model for Gwen. I thought about having her seduce Lily but decided in the end that it would have been out of character for her to be predatory, or for Lily to succumb, however vulnerable she was at the time.
Q6: The novel includes a lot of technical detail about silk weaving and parachutes. How much research did you have to do?
For a while I became quite a parachute geek – reading all kinds of technical manuals and talking to experts. The silk information was easier because of my father’s experience. I was also privileged to meet some of the weavers, now in their eighties and nineties, who actually wove parachute silk during the war. We held a wonderful tea party for them at the mill and their memories were invaluable. But I’m no expert and research can only take you so far – and I am sure that some of my technical detail will be found wanting by those who know better.
Surprisingly difficult! Although being a journalist means I’m not afraid of facing a blank page, writing fiction is like running a marathon instead of a sprint. With journalism the characters and the plot are fixed, but in fiction it is all down to your imagination and you have to make sure that the characters and their responses and actions are credible and logical, while keeping them exciting and interesting. If you are lucky, there comes a time when you are so ‘into’ the story that your characters start doing unexpected things and new characters arrive uninvited, and those moments are great fun. The disciplines of journalism – deadlines, accuracy and consistency – are helpful, but writing fiction is a completely different craft with its own special enjoyment.
Q8: The novel is full of sad events and yet manages to remain hopeful. Did you know how the novel would end when you started writing it?
As a feminist and the mother of two daughters, I wanted to write a coming-of-age story in which a young woman discovers her self-confidence in the world of work, and becomes accepted on equal terms with men. But the trajectory of a novel can never be that simple – there must be trials and tragedies along the way, and the wartime setting provides plenty of these. When I started The Last Telegram all I really knew was that it would be set in the mill during the war, that Lily would fall in love with Stefan and somehow would end up running the company. Very little else was certain. Until I got close to the final chapters I wasn’t entirely sure how it would end, except that she would have to make peace with herself, both in relation to Gwen and to the mistake she believes she made.